Canine Behavior/jumping fence/barking issues
I have a one year old German Shepherd mix that is a female. She currently is not spayed but I'm hoping to get it done soon. We have plenty of space in our backyard for her to play and be with our 1 year old aussie. Both of them get along great. Just recently she has been jumping our chain linked fence and the neighbors are afraid of her. When they walk their dogs, she barks and sometimes will jump the fence, but never fully goes after them. She is only aggressive to food, so we usually separate our dogs when we feed them. As a puppy she bit a lot and I think it was because she was taken away early and was dropped off at an auto store where I took her in. She gets along with our cats as best as a dog can as well as our horse. Our neighbor also complains that she barks at his dogs and chases them up and down the fence. So my parents advised me to tie her up. Within a week, she acts like a completely different dog. She keeps her head down when I call her name to pet her and the other night when I went to see her when I got home from work, she just just laying down and didn't bother to move her head. I honestly do not know what to do at this point and am wondering if I put a higher fence, try some basic training at home with a training collar, and also getting her spayed might help the problem. The issue isn't necessarily barking but it would be nice for her to stop barking at other dogs. I thought that socializing her with people and dogs may also be good, if done in a safe environment. I really want to keep her because she has done nothing majorly wrong, she just isn't Obeying. Another thing is that she will run away from you when you try to pet her and won't come when called. I would appreciate any advice given to me. I have not the slightest idea of what to do. Also, she is an outside dog since we live on a little farm. Currently though, I am going to keep her in my house, in a kennel, until I figure what would be the best thing to do. Thank you so much in advance!
Thank you for your question. It can be frustrating when our dogs aren't living by our human standards for good manners and neighborly behavior. Unfortunately, unless/until we teach our dogs what the human rules are, they will not likely happen upon them on their own.
There are several facets to addressing your current issue with your GSD (love GSDs by the way - I grew up with a beautiful cream/black GSD :-) ).
First - management. Yes, you need a higher fence. Not only higher, but also privacy so that she can't see through it. A 12-foot chain link fence may keep her in, but will only serve to further increase her barking and reactive behavior as she watches people pass by her yard. Instead, you need an opaque fence that she can't see through. This may be a wood fence, a vinyl fence or a chain link that has those slats running through the entirety of it to create privacy. Or, if really short on money (or until you can get the fence replaced), string up and secure tarps to the fence so that it becomes a solid barrier rather than one she can see through.
You didn't indicate the current height of the fence, but most GSDs that are in good shape can easily jump a 6-foot fence, so you'd be looking for something in the 8- to 10-foot height for security. Also make sure there's nothing near the fence line that she can use to gain height, making it easier for her to get up and over.
Keeping her inside when you're unable to supervise her outside is ideal. Dogs are social creatures and naturally need to be with humans much of the time. They co-evolved along side humans and in fact would not even exist as domestic dogs if earlier versions of dog hadn't taken up residence and bonded with people. So, too much unsupervised yard time can be a detriment to the mental health of any dog. Some dogs are more sensitive to that than others and your GSD may be one who requires more human contact than some. Of course, spending time inside will take practice if she's not used to it as coming inside initially will be such an exciting thing that she's likely to be out of control with energy. Ideally, she should have some good, hard play/exercise outside and when she's tired, bring her in and spend quiet cuddle time with her inside so that she's learning that inside is relaxation space and outside is heavy play space. Ditto for your other dog - they should both get to come inside...
Tying her up may actually increase her reactive behavior because now she's actually restrained and if something upsets her she has no way to escape to another part of the yard, so that would be my last-resort choice in any situation, especially if bringing her inside is an option.
Other outside options would be to install a large kennel, say 20X20 that has 6-foot high walls and an attached roof. The dogs can stay together in there since you indicated they get along. But she's fully secure and cannot get to the fence line to jump over or bother passersby. On this kennel, if it's in view of where she's acting out, I'd put tarp or other barricade so she can't see people/dogs walking past your property. This could be a great short-term fix until you can replace the property fence. Just make sure that you make that kennel space a fantastic place to be. All meals should happen in there, you should go in and spend quality time playing tug or mini-fetch games inside the kennel, sit and read aloud to the dogs while giving belly rubs (if they like that), play games in the yard that include going into the kennel - toss favorite toys in there or treats for them to seek out - all stuff so that going into the kennel brings great things. This would be my choice over tying the dog for both mental health of the dog as well as safety - I've had dogs get twisted around things and end up nearly strangling to death on a tie-out.
Now, for the actual behavior... She "never fully goes after them" YET. Her behavior sounds like it's escalating, which means that she may at some point actually engage with a person or dog who is walking by and we don't want to risk that.
It sounds like she's displaying what's called Territorial Aggression. This is when she believes she is protecting her property by telling others to get the heck away. Barking is a distance-increasing behavior, which means she's essentially yelling at those people/dogs telling them "Get off my property!!!!" It will take some patience and training to teach her alternative behaviors when there are people/dogs on the other side of the fence. Essentially you want to teach her that she doesn't have to protect the property, and instead the appearance of people/dogs on the other side of the fence reliably predicts something awesome for her (favorite toys, favorite treats, favorite games, etc) This is a process called Counter Conditioning - where you actively help her make a new association from "You're an intruder and I'm in danger!" to "You mean Cheese!!!!"
The key to successfully doing that, though is that she does not ever have unsupervised access to the yard until the counter conditioning is complete. The reason for that is because if she's out there and you're not with her to show her that the passerby predicts the awesome thing, then she'll continue to have practice at being reactive and that will undermine your training efforts.
I don't know what you are referring to when you mention the use of a "training collar." I do not advocate the use of choke chains, pinch/prong collars nor electronic (shock) collars. Especially in cases such as this. These collars work by punishing the dog for doing the wrong thing. But the dog is behaving as she is because she's trying to communicate with the people/dogs to stay away. If you punish her for communicating, two things are likely to happen. First, she'll start communicating earlier and earlier. In other words, if she is currently only barking when they are directly outside her fence, but not if they are across the street or in front of the neighbor's house, punishing her for telling them to stay away will likely cause her to start telling them to stay away while they are further and further from your house.
Think of it this way: Scary thing approaches 5 feet away and she says, "You're scary. Stay back" Then she gets a correction by the collar. Now we've just confirmed for her that scary thing is not only scary, but dangerous. So next time she sees scary thing, she'll tell it when it's 8 or 10 feet away, "Stay back. You're scary and dangerous!" and then she gets a correction by the collar, and we've just confirmed that the scary thing is still dangerous at 8 or 10 feet away. So now she tells the scary thing when it's 15 feet away, "Stay back, you're scary and dangerous!" and she gets a correction by the collar.... The cycle continues and before you know it, she's having a meltdown when a dog or stranger is more than a football field away from her!
That's not what you want, I'm sure. I'm guessing you want her to see strangers or dogs and simply think, "Oh. You're there and that's fine because good things happen to me when I see you." This is aim of counter conditioning and it's extremely successful when done correctly and with patience, letting the dog determine what distance feels safe. You may have to start practicing somewhere off property in order to start making the association that passersby mean good things and then move to your property to generalize that for her. Being on property to start may be too overwhelming for her initially and you may not be able to create enough space for her to feel comfortable.
The other potential result of using punishment to try to change this behavior is that you risk teaching her that communicating at all isn't safe. She may stop barking, but that doesn't mean she suddenly feels safe. In fact, it usually means her sense of fear has increased to include being too afraid to tell you she's uncomfortable. This scenario is extremely dangerous because this is where we get the so-called out-of-the-blue attack. She was still afraid, but didn't tell anyone she was uncomfortable and so she ends up finding herself in situations she's unable to cope with and her the response will be to lash out - skip the communication and go straight to the bite. We definitely don't want that. So we don't want to punish the communication out of her.
There's a great book that may help you begin to work on this. It's called Click to Calm - Healing the Aggressive Dog
, by Emma Parsons
You may also want to seek out the assistance of a local professional trainer who uses force-free and fear-free training techniques who can observe your dog and help you better understand what is motivating her behavior as it may be different in different situations, even though it looks very similar across many situations. Then they can help you tailor a behavior plan for you and your dog to make find the best success.
A group obedience class (force free class) may be a useful thing for teaching some basic obedience and getting some practice at being around/seeing other dogs without reacting. But she may not be ready for such a class. You may, instead, need to seek out a growly dog class in which the focus is working on their comfort level at being around other dogs and not focused on Sit, Stay, Come, etc. Again, you want to make sure you're working with a trainer who is using force free and fear free techniques. The beauty of these classes is that the entire class is focused on this one issue, and all the other owners are dealing with the same thing you are and so will be more supportive than you might find if you try to do this work during a regular obedience class that is not really set up for addressing the intensity that she may display.
Another book I recommend to every client I have is called, On Talking Terms with Dogs - Calming Signals
, by Turid Rugaas. It's a great book and easy to read. It will walk you through a host of very subtle behavior signals that dogs give when they're feeling anxious, nervous or stressed. These signals often come before the more obvious growl, lunge, bark, snap behaviors that we readily recognize. If you can see the earlier signs of stress you can intervene at that point and teach her that good things happen and change her perspective before she feels the need to lash out in self defense. This is ideal - to cut off the anxiety before it escalates to an aggressive display. But you have to first recognize those subtle signs such as lip licking, yawning, squinty/blinky eyes, raised paw, ear position, tail position, etc.
Regarding getting her spayed - there are a number of health reasons to do that procedure and if you're not planning to breed her, then I agree she should be spayed. However, spaying her will only reduce hormone-based (sexual) behaviors. If she's jumping the fence to solicit mates because she's in heat, then spaying her will definitely eliminate that behavior. But if she's jumping the fence in an effort to protect her territory from what she believes might be a potential threat, then spaying her will not effect that behavior. In fact, removing her ovaries, may actually increase her overall testosterone levels, which could result in an increase in aggressive behavior.
To that end, I would discuss with your vet the option of doing an ovary-sparing spay (they remove the uterus, but leave the ovaries in place) so as to preserve her estrogen levels. If your vet doesn't do that, do some google research and find a vet in your area who will discuss it with you and who is able/willing to do that procedure.
I should point out - I am not a veterinarian. But I have read some studies that indicate that female dogs who are already showing aggressive displays may have an increase in such displays after spay due to the change in estrogen/testosterone levels. Now, this may not be the case in your situation with some good management (create a barrier so she can't see the passersby), allowing the dogs inside more often than out, supervising outside time so you can do the counter conditioning and using a technique such as the Click-to-Calm to help her change her perspective. That may be sufficient and a traditional spay will have no impact on this. But, if there is a hormone component to her behavior, then removing her ovaries could (maybe, not definitively according to the science) potentially increase the aggressive behavior. Just food for thought....
I hope some of this proves helpful and was not too confusing or overwhelming. Please feel free to followup if i can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Worcester, MA Behavior Specialist
Masters Candidate - Animals and Public Policy (Animal Behavior)
Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine